Top lawmaker on AI working group says privacy regs should be a priority for Congress

The vice chair of Congress’ artificial intelligence caucus says privacy regulations need to be a top short-term priority for Congress as Washington looks to get to grips with the rapidly emerging technology – which he says poses risks, but could be a catalyst for the next expansion of the U.S. economy.

Rep. Jay Obernolte, R-Calif., told Fox News Digital in an interview that he is an optimist when it comes to the potential for artificial intelligence, but Congress needs to make sure it is protecting Americans from the potential negatives and disruption that AI brings. 

“I think in the short term, the ability of AI to pierce through digital data privacy and to re-aggregate data that has supposedly been disaggregated and use it to create behavioral models that could be used to influence behavior, that’s very concerning, and that’s something that the government definitely needs to play a role in mitigating,” Obernolte said.

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Rep. Jay Obernolte has a graduate degree in artificial intelligence. (Tom Williams/CQ-Roll Call, Inc via Getty Images)

He warned that privacy regulations are currently in a patchwork state across the U.S.

“Right now, the federal government has done almost no regulation of digital data privacy, and it’s all been left up to the states. So some states have quite comprehensive data regulation, such as California, some states haven’t created any regulations at all,” he said.

More broadly, he said Congress’ role involves setting guardrails in which the states work on the issue. He also stressed that Congress needs to do work to prevent the formation of monopolies on the issue, saying lawmakers need to create a pool of resources that academic institutions can use to do research and development on AI – something he says isn’t happening currently.

“The cutting-edge research is done behind closed doors by companies,” he warned.

Obernolte and other lawmakers in the caucus have introduced the CREATE AI Act, which would establish a National Artificial Intelligence Research Resource – a shared national research infrastructure for researchers and students to use.

It’s an issue close to Obernolte’s heart. 

A former computer engineer and video game developer, Obernolte also has a graduate degree in AI, making him a rare expert on the matter among congressional lawmakers. He says he understands the concerns some share about the technology, but warns that Congress can’t just “regulate for the sake of regulating” and warned against too much of a heavy hand from Washington D.C. 

He said the U.S. should not follow the approach the European Union is taking, in which he says AI is viewed as something completely new and requiring whole new agencies to regulate it. Instead, he believes that existing agencies should be given the resources to regulate AI within their own sectors.

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He also stressed that the threats from AI are real, but are not those often painted by science-fiction movies, instead pointing to concerns about privacy, monopolies and the potential for malicious actors to use AI to spread mis- and disinformation.

“AI is not going to lead to an army of evil robots rising to take over the world,” he said. “But if we’re not careful, it could have very negative consequences for society. So those are the things you have to focus on as we come to craft regulation around it.”

Ultimately though, he believes that AI has the potential to benefit the U.S. enormously.

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“I’m an AI optimist, but there are definitely some risks associated with AI. It will undeniably bring a lot of disruption. Every new technology in human history has been disruptive, starting with the printing press, and most recently with the Internet. But if we manage the disruption appropriately, then I think AI could be extremely beneficial,” he said.

“Think about the fact that throughout the history of the United States, every major expansion of our economy has been heralded by an increase in the productivity of American workers. And yet, over the last six years, you’ve seen a gradual decline in worker productivity. AI has the potential to reverse that and be a catalyst for the next huge expansion not only of our economy, but also of American prosperity. So those are the upsides. So that’s why we have to be so careful and so appropriate when we devise regulation around it.

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